“Give me six hours to chop down a tree and I will spend the first four sharpening the axe.” – Abraham Lincoln
Every Sunday evening, I block out an hour before dinner to plan out the following week. The goal of this hour is to think though the best use of my time. Since time is my scarcest resource, I want to use it as effective as possible and spending an hour each week thinking about how to use my time has been responsible for adding at least 10 hours of productivity to my week.
The hour I spend every Sunday helps me think through where I want to be a week later and the path I should take to get there. Think of it as beginning a treasure hunt knowing where the treasure is and finding easiest and shortest path to get there.
How I plan for productivity
During my weekly planning session, I think about my goals for the year (usually anchored in my New Year’s Resolutions) and what I could do this week to get closer to accomplishing my those goals.
For each goal, I think about the series of small but meaningful actions I could take to get closer to accomplishing my goal. By thinking about the small activities that bring meaningful results, I leverage a) the Pareto principle and b) the cognitive load theory.
The Pareto principle, also known as the 80/20 rule, says 80% of the output come from 20% of the input. You see this in real life, for example for the average company, the best 20% of salesman are responsible for 80% of the total sales. This is to say not all input produces the same level of output. So given how limited time is, I want to engage in those few activities that produce the majority of the results and not waste it doing activities that bring little outcome.
The cognitive load theory says that every activity we engage in requires a level of effort and mental exhaustion. This is why someone who might works with Excel all day might appear more tired than a construction worker who has been moving cement all day. The key to reducing mental exhaustion is to take as much of the thinking out of an activity as possible. For example, President Obama has someone pick his clothes each morning so he doesn’t have to think about what to wear and can focus on much more important issues.
If you can leverage both the Pareto principle and cognitive load theory in your own life, you’ll begin to accomplish more while doing less.
How I automate my successes
To give a concrete example of how my planning session works, one of my goals this year is to add 20 pounds of lean muscle. This works out to be .4 lbs. per week, so my goal each week is to gain .4 lbs., but that is vague and left to my own device, I’ll forget about it. Instead I view the “gaining .4 lbs” as an outcome I can achieve by performing a sub-set of other activities. In this case, building lean muscle is quite simple.
- Eat eat more calories than my body burns
- Lift heavy weights
For this example, I’ll focus on eating. My target goal is 3,200 calories each day. Which is about to 1.5 times the average. I could cook 2 extra meals, but that takes time. I could buy two extra meals, but that costs more money that needed. Instead I identify the 80/20 for getting enough calories as making and drinking three protein shakes a day in addition to my normal meals. Making the shakes take 3 minutes and consuming them 1 minute so much faster than cooking more meals and they’re cheaper than eating out 2 additional times a day. With 12 minutes a day invested, I can achieve my eating goal. It would take me more than 15 minutes to cook/eat two meals.
Once I identify the 80/20 activities, I break those activities down to smaller actions I can do with as little thinking as possible (managing my cognitive load). Each night, I make my protein shakes so I have them ready in the morning. I do this without thinking and each time I make a shake I am closer to my goal; my muscle gaining routine is automated, my .4 lbs. gains are almost certain, so reaching my 20 lbs. goal is almost certain. All it took was taking time to plan it out.
Every Sunday, I’ll go through each of my goal with the same lens: identifying the 80/20 activities and breaking those activities into small actions that I can do without thinking. The more I do it the easier it becomes to identify the small, meaningful activities I should be engaging in.
By identifying only a handful of small but meaningful actions, I begin each week with a highly targeted list of actions I can act on, not a random list of to-dos just to appear busy without having accomplished much.
At the end of every week and before I start planning for the next, I review the progress for the previous week . I’ll mark the actions I completed and the ones I didn’t. The actions I completed indicate the progress I’ve made on my goals while the activities I didn’t give me chances to understand how I can improve.
For those activities that I didn’t complete, I try to understand why I was unable to complete them. Did I overschedule myself? Did I identify the wrong action? Did I make my goal too lofty?
If an action was too lofty but important to me, for the next week, I’ll break it down into even smaller actions to make it even easier and less time-consuming to get started. My goal is to build momentum so once I complete one small task, I’ll be prepared to move on to the next.
For example, a few weeks ago, I wanted to schedule a dentist appointment, a task that went undone. The following week, I broke the task into smaller actions: using Yelp to find a dentist that near my office and recording her number (5 mins). The next day I called her office to schedule an appointment (6 mins). Appointment booked.
Having a review process allows me to measure my progress while continuing to improve the way I reach my goals. I identify my wins for the week and learn from my failures, so they too can become wins in the future.
The first time I started getting into this routine of a weekly review was hard. I would set lofty goals and when I didn’t reach them feel disappointed; I would identify the wrong actions and felt I was spinning my wheels from week to week. I still run into these problems today, but I am much better at minimizing these after having been through so many review cycles. The first few weeks are tough, but afterwards this routine will increase your overall productivity and confidence in being able to achieve your goals.
Why don’t you try it this weekend?